The newest addition to Major League Soccer (MLS) and Austin’s first professional sports team, offers a unique opportunity for students in the sport management program in the College of Education. Sport management students have been working with Austin FC to help grow a fanbase in Austin through community events and in-class projects. After lengthy negotiations with the city to gain approval to build a new privately-financed stadium, Austin FC will begin play in 2021 as the MLS’s 27th club. The department hopes to extend the partnership to other programs such as athletic training and exercise physiology.
For more than a year, Assistant Professor Matt Bowers and the sport management faculty have worked closely with representatives from Austin FC to brainstorm ways for Kinesiology and Health Education (KHE) students to collaborate with the new franchise. On the Austin FC side, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships Chris Quinn has led an ambitious effort to deepen connections with the program and the department.
With a clear timeline for beginning play now in place, the team’s attention has turned to establishing a fan base and presence in the community, a monumental task for any major sports franchise. In fall 2018, students in Bowers’ graduate sport marketing class participated in a full semester immersion with Austin FC aimed at doing just that.
The students’ projects involved developing strategies for attracting college students to engage with the team, developing media campaigns to promote the organization, and identifying potential jersey sponsors for the team.
All of these projects saw students actively pitching their ideas to Austin FC and getting feedback. During the jersey sponsor project, Quinn even went so far as to invite executives from the potential sponsors the students were pitching to come and participate in the presentation. “This was really an unbelievably high-level experience for the students,” says Bowers.
Not only did Quinn embrace an immediate presence across multiple courses, but he also enlisted the help of other high-level Austin FC executives, such as team president Andy Loughnane. They collaborated with sport management faculty to think about how the program and the team could create a meaningful partnership moving forward.
“Austin FC is proud to work alongside the talented sport management faculty and students at the University of Texas at Austin, and we look forward to growing our partnership with the university and the student body,” says Loughnane.
“We are incredibly fortunate to be in close proximity to the diverse and talented pool of high-potential job candidates and soccer supporters who attend the University of Texas at Austin, and we are very grateful to both the UT academic and athletic communities who have embraced our club in the earliest stages,” says Loughnane. “Under the leadership of Dr. Bowers, UT students have already begun to incorporate elements of Austin’s major league team into curriculum while also actively participating in the development of Austin FC through internship platforms.”
“From the moment Chris and I were introduced, he fostered such an immediate connection with our program and just seemed to understand, on a deeper level, how to create value for students,” says Bowers. “Working with industry partners is something we always pursue in order to create real-world opportunities and experiences for our students, but amongst all of our wonderful contacts through the industry, Chris has been perhaps the most dedicated and ambitious partner we have ever had the pleasure of working with.”
Additional experiences beyond that graduate class included students assisting Chief Revenue Officer Clark Beacom, while learning about market research data collection. A range of guest speakers have come to speak to classes, such as VP of Corporate Partnerships Alison Roscoe, and Marty Butler, whose Austin-based firm the Butler Bros handled the design and development of the team’s branding.
Additionally, the Austin FC Launch Team, whose job it was to be out in the community helping to create awareness and engagement around the soccer club, was comprised almost entirely of students from the sport management program.
“At this time, Austin FC works with 15 UT-Austin undergrad students who routinely mobilize to form an important grassroots marketing team who help support a full-time staff of approximately 35 employees, including 5 staff members who graduated from UT-Austin,” says Loughnane. “As we grow our headcount, one of the first places we will be looking is UT Austin, as we know we can tap into some of the smartest, hardest working, most talented students around.”
Austin FC also recruits interns directly from the sport management program to work across a range of departments within the organization, from sales and corporate partnerships to community development and the new Austin FC youth academy. While potential interns go through a conventional interview process, their connection to the club through class projects and outside experiences gives them excellent opportunities to secure exciting positions at Austin FC. Interns help grow Austin FC as it prepares to build a new stadium, develop community partnerships, and begin play in a couple of seasons.
“None of this would have been possible without the dynamic leadership of Chris Quinn, Andy Loughnane and the Austin FC braintrust,” says Bowers. “From the moment we connected with the team, they have demonstrated an uncanny commitment to developing a true long-term partnership.”
As the team becomes more established in Austin, Bowers hopes the partnership grows within the department, but also across other colleges in the university.
Bowers and Quinn have ambitious plans for potentially developing a class that could be co-taught by professionals from Austin FC and to create even more unique opportunities for students, like creating an internship position reserved for a first-generation college student. With the groundwork already in place, the sport management program and Austin FC hope to continue to grow alongside one another.